Oliver Stark has been writing for as long as he can remember. As a teenager, he was an avid fan of American detective stories and made his first attempt at crime fiction at the age of sixteen; this never reached publication. After trying a wide variety of jobs, from working in a bookies to managing a pub, he finally gave in to his passion for reading and went on to study literature at university. Oliver now lives in London with his wife and children. American Devil is the first novel in a gritty New York crime thriller series featuring Detective Tom Harper and psychologist Denise Levene. The sequel 88 Killer was published last August, and Oliver is currently working on the third book in the series. In this post he discusses Churchill's A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.
Oliver Stark on A History of the English-Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill
I was not a great reader of literature as a child, but I was remarkably good at pretending. Throughout primary school, I excelled at feigning the reading of books and I ploughed through my reading project, knowing only the front cover, the blurb and what I could glean from the more literary members of my class.
This approach was repeated at O-level and seemed not to have made a great deal of difference. Those who read the books we were tested on seem to have come away with the same result as I achieved. Reading, I concluded, was unnecessary.
I did read a certain number of graphic novels, and some detective fiction and horror fiction but, of course, I never considered this reading as such, more of a slightly immoral and clandestine activity. Indeed, reading as required by school, from Blue Book 5 to The History of Mr Polly was something I had to do with my rational and thinking brain, which was, unfortunately, very lazy and underdeveloped. Reading Guy N. Smith's Night of the Crabs, or Mickey Spillane's detective novels, however, asked for no such evolutionary nicety.
Reason was there, of course, but as a function of plot and story; the heart of the experience was a visceral excitement. Action dominated, fears loomed and dangers threatened. The next chapter appeared and then the next, and the heat of the battles and struggles seemed to turn the pages themselves. With school books, I often felt the need to re-read the opening paragraph several times.
That is a long-winded way of saying that my way of developing a love of story was through detective fiction and pulp horror. It was only later that I discovered the finer aspects of literature, of philosophy and of history.
However, as a youngster, someone suggested that I might try a touch of history, if it was blood and danger and plot that I enjoyed, so I read a book that was offered. It was by a man called Churchill whose name was vaguely familiar.
It took a little time to win me over, of course, as the tone is quite grand, but a story is not just a matter of the tale told but also of the teller, and this storyteller had something in his style that made me want to read on.
So read on I did, and found, as promised, all the blood, the fear, the danger, the horror, that I could have wished for, yet told not about a hero saving the world from giant crabs but about successive invasions and wars over a small island called Britain.
It was, of course, Churchill's incredible historical survey, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. It now amazes me that it was a book started before the Second World War and completed long after. A story of Britain that was shaped by the hand of a man who knew what the fate of a nation felt like in his hands and knew why it mattered to have some greater 'myth' or story upon which to attach your smaller life. This understanding, as I read it again recently, adds a poignancy to every sentence.
So here was a book, not of literature, but based on history and retold with the vision and character and passion of a great storyteller. It rose and fell with the fates of its character, but you always felt that good would win in the end and that good was what mattered. And it was history told as a sweeping and fast narrative - history as page-turner, as horror, as graphic novel, as detective story. I loved its endless variations, the twists and turns of fate, the terrible battles, the horrible losses, the myth of the land of Britain rising above it all.
I remember being deeply upset at the loss of 80,000 or more of Boudicca's army at the hands of the disciplined Roman legions. Her story was more vicious, more bloody, more full of revenge than any I'd ever come across in fiction. Britain was no longer the grey drab country of boredom and rain, but was transformed into the most heart-rending story of betrayal, rape - the story of the savage revenge of a nation and the slaughter of the rebellious tribes.
I have read many accounts of Britain since then, by many different writers who have adopted different approaches to take us through the long sweep of history, and many of them may be better historians than Churchill, but few, if any, will leave you with a great passion for the story, and a feeling of being in the hands of a master storyteller.
And, of course, it makes the spine tingle that little bit more to think that this storyteller was himself a great part of the story.
I think of the books we read now and value, and the stories we tell to children, and I wonder whether there is enough about them to awaken not only the intelligence and the poetry of the reader, but the heart, the lungs and the instinct. When I think of the books that woke up my instincts, it was the unknown cousins of literature, every time. Literature was a much later visitor.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]